Promoting Natural & Cultural History
‘Having set out on his journey and as though transported into a new world, he should consider it incumbent upon him to observe everything…’ This advice was part of Carl Linnaeus’ printed dissertation Instruction for naturalists on voyages of exploration in 1759, which gave a multitude of recommendations for long journeys over land and sea. It was desired to avoid all sorts of disputes and disagreements, but this was of course not always realised. It seems to have been quite unusual to describe textile materials, dyes, footwear and clothing as unpleasant, unpractical, disagreeable, ugly or unattractive judging by their journals and correspondence. This essay will give a glimpse into such everyday observations – made by five former students of Linnaeus – experienced from a European perspective on long-distance voyages.
The naturalist Peter Forsskål, instead took part in The Royal Danish Expedition to Arabia (1761-63), he experienced many general problems and sadly died of possible malaria in Yemen in July 1763, just 30 years old. In the previous year for instance, in October 1762, the journey had continued via South Arabia where his botanical collections became considerable – including plants for natural dyes – often assisted by local inhabitants, but he also mentioned on several occasions the troubles and dangers of moving around in the area due to the suspicious nature of local groups. The dilemma was not only having to take account of the problems of being accepted as a European; there had from the very beginning also been disagreement between members of the expedition.
Whilst the arrival and the early days in Suriname were particularly difficult for the Linnaeus’ apostle Daniel Rolander: a combination of heat, humidity, strong smells, insects’ buzzing, “dangerous animals” and a general feeling of uneasiness. Sleeping and getting some night rest was also extremely trying, at the same time as he had to get used to sleeping in a hammock woven of cotton. Yet that berth was thought considerably more comfortable in the constant heat than a warm bed. The hammock could also have the advantage of making it more difficult for crawling insects to surprise the sleeper, though it was no guarantee as they might drop down from the ceiling, which is mentioned on 26 June 1755. ‘About midnight, a short time before I had gone to sleep, I felt a small animal moving on my foot. I immediately grabbed a lit candle, and having carefully and gradually withdrawn the hammock from my foot, I discovered a Scorpio Americanus slowly moving across my foot. My hair stood on end and my limbs turned to ice, but nevertheless I kept my foot still until this unpleasant insect had gone past it and into the hammock.’ Rolander escaped unscathed from the incident and continued to sleep in the cotton hammock. He also noted the significance of that sleeping arrangement in other contexts, mainly to do with what materials were used and who manufactured them.
Already during Kalm’s time in London he prepared for the dangers of rattlesnakes in North America for instance, and wrote on 4 May 1748 in his travel journal: ‘If one is wearing boots one has nothing to fear from it, as it is unable to bite through the boot.’ On 15 June 1749, he lingered on the same subject that it was practical and safe to wear boots, in this case due to the immense swarm of gnats in the vast woods and uninhabited grounds between Albany and Canada, but the problem was that it being too hot to be comfortable in leather boots. Whilst the wear and tear of shoes even was an extensive issue not only when travelling or collecting natural history specimens in the countryside, but also in the city of Quebec itself: ‘The streets in the upper city have a sufficient breadth, but are very rugged, on account of the rock on which it lies; and this renders them very disagreeable and troublesome, both to foot-passengers and carriages. The black lime-slates basset out and project every where into sharp angles, which cut the shoes in pieces’ (5 August 1749).
Even if negative experiences linked to clothing, shoes, textile materials and other similar observations can be traced to these 18th century long-distance travelling naturalists. The overall impression is that they quite seldom revealed emotions of boredom, discontent, annoyance, apathy, unconcern or frustration regarding their work and everyday life in their writings. Probably due to that their instructions gave advice of “positive thinking” – that is to say it was desired to observe everything useful, be curious as well as diligent to be able to add new-learned knowledge to one’s travel diary on a daily or at least a regular basis.
This essay is part of the ongoing textile and natural history project: ‘Personal belongings and collections on 18th century travels’.